By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1998, The Syracuse Newspapers
Why not let your Web browser talk to you?
When you have a Web page on your screen, you don't have to read it yourself. You can listen to it. And you can listen to other things—to e-mail messages, documents in your word processor, quarterly reports in your financial program and anything else that has words or numbers.
All you need is a program that speaks to you by reading the text in one of the windows on your screen. Vocal text readers have been around a long, long time—I remember writing such a program about 15 years ago for my Atari 130 XE computer—but most of the ones created for Windows have voices that sound more like robotic rejects than human beings.
That's still a problem in most inexpensive text readers, because they all use the same "voice engine" (developed by Microsoft some time back) to create the vocalizations. But really clever programmers can turn this standard voice engine into a sweet-talking companion.
That's just what the folks at Willow Media have done with WillowTalk, their $30 text reader for Windows 95 and 98. When you use WillowTalk, you'll still hear some clumsiness now and then as the robot in your computer stumbles over odd pronunciations, but you'll probably find, as I have, that you'll be able to get just the right voice from the many included with WillowTalk. And if you're still not satisfied, you can create your own customized robotic reader, with full control over inflection, speed and such attributes as breathiness and accents. (You can even choose a heavy smoker's throaty inflections, the raspy mutterings of a chronic whisperer or a man or woman with a cold. There's even the voice of a "doctor," named Dennis, sounding just like a guy who's been breathing too many formaldehyde fumes.)
WillowTalk can be tried out for free by downloading the program from the company's Web site athttp://www.willowpond.com/. The file is 1.6 megabytes, and should not take long to download. You can order a non-expiring version on CD from the site.
WillowTalk requires a Windows 95 or 98 PC equipped with a Pentium processor or equivalent. (The program needs a lot of processor horsepower to keep it from bogging everything else down, although it will run on slower PCs.) Your PC also needs a working sound system, of course.
WillowTalk places what looks like a boombox radio-cassette player on your screen. The front of the player is cut away to allow the player to snuggle up against the upper left corner of your Web browser or word processor (or any other program window). Like a tape player, WillowTalk has Play, Stop, Pause and Rewind buttons (but, oddly, no Fast Forward button). Large green LEDs show the time in a display that looks like an FM tuner's dial. WillowTalk's voice will also read out the time every so often if you turn that function on.
WillowTalk knows what programs are running and shows all the ones it can read from in a drop-down list in its "player" window. These include Microsoft Word, Access, Excel, Encarta, Outlook, Notepad, WordPad, Internet Explorer and Windows Help, as well as Netscape Navigator, WordPerfect, Lotus WordPro. Lotus 1-2-3 and the Eudora e-mail program. To read text from any other program, you have to copy it and paste it into one of the programs WillowTalk supports (an easy task in most cases).
WillowTalk comes with 29 voices. Any of them can be customized, and you can save the customizations without altering the voices supplied by Willow Pond. WillowTalk is ideal for sightless users, because all functions can be controlled by shortcut keys. You can even change from one voice to another by pressing a key combination.
You can even make a recording of WillowTalk's speech to play later. Just run any Windows audio recorder—one comes free with Windows, but it only makes short recordings, so you'll want to use a better one—and press the record button before WillowTalk begins speaking. Save the recording as a WAV file and then compress it as an MPEG Layer 3 file if it's longer than a few minutes. (Free MPEG compressors are available; checkhttp://www.winfiles.com for downloads.)
(Willow Pond also sells an outstanding rack-type media player, in software, for Windows 95 and 98. This program is so unusual that it deserves its own report, next week.)